Not long after playing the unforgettably fragile and enraged Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, Leon Vitali walked away from a promising acting career to become Stanley Kubrick’s jack of all trades—a one-man administration and production team. As his legend attests, Kubrick was an obsessive with an endless devotion to the minutiae of his chosen trade, and he expected everyone working with him to be similarly obsessed. Vitali became a personal assistant who evolved into something like a cross between an abused lover, historian, and master craftsman in his own right, working almost literally 24/7 to realize the specifics of Kubrick’s vision.
Tony Zierra’s tender, sympathetic documentary Filmworker viscerally establishes the particulars of Vitali’s contribution to one of the most scrutinized bodies of work in cinema. The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut were but a portion of Kubrick’s endeavors after Barry Lyndon. There was always correspondence to answer, research to conduct for potential projects, actors to meet, studio executives to fight with, color timing to supervise for new prints, dubbings to oversee, and ad campaigns to manage, not to mention enough archive work to engage the staff of a conventional museum. Vitali was deeply involved in every aspect of Kubrick’s career, and, perhaps most pivotally, coached actors on the sets of Kubrick’s last three films. Vitali is among a long and ignoble tradition of people who enabled a great artist who didn’t hesitate to take all the credit.
One doesn’t leave Filmworker feeling warm and cuddly about Kubrick, who comes off as an amoral genius driven by his art at the expense of the humans in his orbit. Kubrick’s oft-cited preoccupation with “dehumanization”—and with characters who are ruined by malevolent manipulators both terrestrial and supernatural—seems to be very personal indeed. Parables of the limits and temptations of control, Kubrick’s films are the result of the very systematic exertions of will that they explore. This irony gives the films their unshakable power, as they’re formally perfect deconstructions of the illusion of perfection. Sometimes Kubrick’s work provokes an unanswerable question: Why? Why all this effort and expense and pain for a robotic expression of futility? Zierra’s documentary elicits a similar response. As Matthew Modine says in the film, Vitali offered a crucifixion of himself.
Zierra interviews Vitali at length, and he’s a commanding camera object with an obvious wellspring of longing and pain. Gaunt and weathered, his head often topped with a bandanna, he suggests an aging rocker with a life of war stories. Zierra also speaks with a number of other key Kubrick collaborators, mostly actors and most memorably the recently deceased R. Lee Ermey, who credits Vitali for helping him to create the terrifying and iconic Hartman for Full Metal Jacket. Zierra skips along at a propulsive pace, offering telling photos of Vitali seemingly swallowed alive by all the film and documents he had to manage on a daily basis. Filmworker is ultimately a portrait of self-loathing. Vitali believed in Kubrick more than himself, sacrificing his art and life in the process. Yet Vitali’s art infused with Kubrick’s own.
Filmworker is also an examination of the limitations and exaltations of devotion that suffers from a somewhat limited purview itself. Vitali’s family is interviewed only in passing, and one wonders what longtime Kubrick associates such as Jan Harlan make of Vitali’s sacrifice. And a major anxiety is barely touched upon: finances. Near the end of the film, one of Vitali’s children says that they had to loan him money, causing one to wonder what a wealthy filmmaker paid a man who did so much for him. Filmworker could use less animation and less cheeky re-contextualizing of stock footage, and more willingness to look Vitali directly in his eyes and see him. Vitali appears to be a poignant sycophant as well as a kind of hero. Without his stewardship, our present relationship with Kubrick’s films would be impossible, and so Filmworker may give cinephiles and other aesthetes a lump in the throat. How many people have ruined their lives for our delectation?